No one wants to be cast as the prophet Jeremiah in the denominational pageant play; he didn’t seem to have abundance of fun. I hate that I have had to be the bearer of bad news in recent years, but I think it is necessary to look at the facts, analyze the trends, and communicate why they matter (as I tried to do yesterday). Telling the truth often generates controversy in SBC life, but the truth—even bad news—still deserves a proper hearing.
It’s easy to look at the declining statistics in our denomination and moan over the opportunities we are missing. It’s also easy to dismiss statistics and the story they tell, choosing to ignore reality. The way forward for Southern Baptists is to reject both approaches. Instead, we ought to take a deep breath, come to grips with what the stats tell us, and then move forward in hope. There are reasons to be concerned with the state of the Convention, but also reasons to celebrate. I’d like to highlight reasons I’m excited about the meeting in New Orleans next week, and encouraged about the future of the SBC.
1. The Election of Fred Luter as President of the SBC
Everyone I know is excited about being present for the historic vote that will give Southern Baptists our first African-American president. To think that a convention which began through a dispute over slave-holding missionaries would now elect an African-American president is a sign of God’s continued grace to us.
2. The Growing Ethnic Diversity of the SBC
In the last twenty years, we have gone from being a convention that is 95% Anglo to 80% Anglo. This is remarkable progress and indicative of the great strides we have made toward embracing ethnic diversity. I am deeply encouraged by this trend, praying it continues, and hoping it will soon be more recognizable in Southern Baptist leadership as well.
3. We’re Getting Honest About Calvinism
In the past few years, Southern Baptists have been engaged in an often unhealthy dialogue about Calvinism. Still, I am optimistic that—at the end of the day—we can have a mature conversation about theology, preserving unity for the purpose of mission.
If we truly believe the Baptist Faith and Message is our doctrinal standard, then we cannot say that Calvinism, within a Baptist theological system, is itself a problem. Baptist Calvinism fits within our confession; therefore it is reasonable that some in our convention of churches hold to both the Baptist Faith and Message and to a Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture. We can (and should) cooperate in pursuit of the Great Commission. But we also can (and should) differentiate those who are within our confession and passion about cooperation, and those who have let Calvinism define their ministry and culture—an often elitist and agenda-driven Calvinism that is not fitting well in our convention.
While I know some will disagree, our problem is not theological—it is primarily about agenda and culture. Calvinism can peaceably, even helpfully, coexist alongside majority Baptist views in the context of our confession. Yet, there are some (and it appears a growing number) driven by a more aggressive agenda. As I’ve written recently, “At times, I am convinced some ‘nostalgic Calvinists’ have forgotten our mandate is to see men and women brought into the kingdom, not into Geneva.” Their existence should not be denied—just talk to some of my State Executive or DOM friends who are left to deal with the issues.
Yet, we should take care not to let convictional and evangelistic Calvinists who are passionate about cooperating in mission get caught in the crossfire—like so many contemporary church pastors did twenty years ago when the shouting began. We are weaker as a result of that poorly-engaged conversation. We can do better here.
I am hopeful that the voices for unity and honesty will prevail. And I believe the conversation about Calvinism in coming days, particularly with statesman like Frank Page leading, will help us clarify the problem and resist what I see as a growing problem of both elitist Calvinism and militant anti-Calvinism. It’s time to talk about it, and I think we are showing signs that we are finally ready to be honest, discerning, AND charitable.
4. We Are Still a Convention of Churches That Love the Lord and Love the Lost
I’ve had the privilege to serve SBC churches that were rural and urban, small churches and big churches, in church plants and in established traditional churches (most are small and traditional, and we would do well to not forget that). All kinds of churches are needed in the kingdom of God. One observation has persisted in my experience: everywhere I’ve served, I’ve gotten to know people who love the Lord and love the lost. One distinctive mark of churches in our convention is a passion to win the lost for kingdom of God. That gives me great hope.
5. The Beginnings of a Renewed Focus on Church Planting and Evangelism
I had an encouraging conversation with former SBC president Jimmy Draper yesterday. He said, “Ed, if we don’t find a way to encourage church starts, to reinforce doctrinal principles for discipleship to the Great Commission, to enlist, encourage, and equip younger leaders, and to cooperate with those within BF&M parameters, we are dead in the water.”
I agree with Jimmy, and one of the reasons I’m encouraged is that I think we are moving in the right direction on these matters. We saw a slight increase in baptisms this year—and I am praying that will continue. We also saw an encouraging increase in church plants. We still have a long way to go, but it’s clear that we are seeing the beginnings of a renewed focus on personal evangelism and church planting.
6. Young and Experienced Leaders Working Together
For the past five years in particular, we have lamented the departure of young pastors to work alone or with different ministry partners. I understand why many left. But now, like never before, I am seeing experienced leaders shepherd younger leaders, experienced leaders listen and learn from young leaders (and vice versa), and young leaders step up to the plate in gratitude to those who have laid the groundwork. Only when we increase and encourage this type of cooperation, will we see a change in the trends of decline that haunt the SBC. I am optimistic that we will.
I hope you share my excitement and optimism about meeting together next week. If you plan to attend, will you join me in spiritual preparation for our work? After all, where God does great work, you can count on the enemy showing up to oppose it. Be on guard.